The World is Not Enough: Worldbuilding in preparation for Nanowrimo

Alan Lee's rendition of Tolkien's land.

Everyone talks about the importance of ‘making your world believable.’ It’s a big issue in fantasy fiction, especially in the genre of high fantasy in which so much can be ripped off from other people. But while I have read a lot of posts saying, ‘be sure to make your world believable!’ I haven’t seen so many that say, ‘This is how you make your world believable.’

An example: a few years ago I was attending the fantastic Eastercon in London. Eastercon is a huge science fiction and fantasy convention which features famous novelists (George R.R. Martin, Neil Gaiman and China Mieville have all been guests of honour there), and consists of panels, workshops, endless games, book signings and all the things you’d expect at the con of your dreams. When I last attended, there was a late night panel on exactly this topic – how to make a believable fantasy world. So I went to check it out.

To say I was disappointed would be an understatement. The panel consisted of four or five authors who, in reality, spoke about very little. One guy who wrote historical fantasy said, ‘make sure that your history is accurate.’ Gee, really? Another self-published woman spent most of the hour complaining that tween fansĀ  didn’t think her vampires sparkled enough. Which is definitely a topic worth talking about, but a little off-subject. At the end of the hour, I didn’t have any new tips. The general consensus of the panel was, ‘historical writers, make sure your world is accurate. Everyone else…make it multidimensional.’ Okay, but again, how?

Since I’ll be working in a high fantasy setting for Nanowrimo, I want to make sure two things happen: firstly, that my fantasy world should not be a lesser copy of Tolkien, Martin or others. Secondly, my work should seem believable.

Here is a list of things I plan to keep in mind when creating my fantasy world:

  1. How does the government work? Who’s helping the king run things? Is there even a king? Or maybe a queen? Government gets pretty complicated pretty quickly, so this is important to think about.
  2. How does the class system work? What do the lower classes think of the higher, and the higher of the lower? Who’s in which class? This is particularly important for me since my main characters will face this issue often.
  3. What is considered normal? Customs differ from region to region in our world, so it goes without saying that they should be totally different in another.
  4. How does the economy work? This is one of those things with which you could go into great detail, or little. I’m no big economist and I don’t think that a lot of high fantasy writers. Putting in a banking or monetary system will make a world seem just a little more convincing.
  5. How does technology interact with the world? With the rise of steampunk this is becoming an increasingly important question.
  6. How do the other creatures of the world come into play? We’re all used to elves and dwarves and orc-like things. If we want them to stand out from the crowd, we’ll have to develop them.
  7. What do the cities look like? We can take inspiration from London, Dubai, Beijing, ancient Rome, Paris underground, the steppes of Mongolia – or all of them. City planning can give a unique feel to something.
  8. How’s the environment doing? Fun fact: the ancient Romans are still at the top of the chart in terms of polluters. Aside from that, what is the environment actually like? How is it different from the environment of all those other books?
  9. What are the fashions? Laugh if you want, but fashion dictates the look of a lot of things. Not just fashionable clothing, but fashionable architecture, fashionable music, fashionable art, and so on.

Naturally, one of the hardest parts is weaving this into a narrative without just setting it all down as an info dump.

This list is a bit slapdash, full of things I pulled off the top of my head. There are, of course, a lot more things to talk about. The list could go on and on, but I feel that this post should not. If you have something you think should be on the list, put it down in the comments. I’ll be thanking you profusely throughout November. Maybe we can get a nice set of questions together that help build that elusive, well-rounded, completely knockoff-free world that we’re all looking for.

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